With the release of the latest Sight & Sound poll, conducted every 10 years to determine the all-time best films, The House Next Door blog of Slant Magazine invited some of us not lucky enough to contribute to the S&S list to submit our own Top 10s to The House, which posted mine today. Sight & Sound magazine, a publication of the British Film Institute, began its survey in 1952, using only critics. Its 2002 list boasted its largest sample yet, receiving ballots from 145 film critics, writers and scholars as well as 108 directors. The results can be found here, though a note claims the page isn't actively maintained, though it appears complete to me. Since I planned to revise my personal Top 10, posted as part of my Top 100 in 2007, I figured I owed it to my entire Top 100 to redo my entire list. As before, my rule is simple: A film must be at least 10 years old to appear on my list. Therefore, movies released between 1998 and 2002 might appear on this list whereas they couldn't on the 2007 version. The most difficult part of assembling these lists always involves determining rankings. It's an arbitrary process and once you get past the Top 10 or 20, not only do the placements seem rather meaningless but inclusion and exclusions of films begin to weigh on you. In fact, selecting No. 1 remains easy but if I could, I'd have tied Numbers 2 through 20 or so at No. 2. A lot of great films didn't make this 100 through no fault of their own, falling victim to my whim at the moment I made the decision of what made the cut and where it went. In parentheses after a director's name, you'll find a film's 2007 rank or, if it's new to the list, you'll see NR for not ranked or NE for not eligible. I also should note that this does not mean the return of this blog. I had committed to taking part in The House's feature prior to pulling the plug and completed most of this before signing off.
Part of the arbitrary nature of this list (and from the very first all-time 10-best list I compiled in high school) was to try to make sure I represented my favorite directors while still allowing for those films that might be a more singular achievement. (For example, my first high school list had to be sure to include a Woody Allen, a Huston, a Hitchcock, a Wilder, a Truffaut, an Altman.) The more great cinema you see, the harder it becomes to justify that since lots of directors deserve recognition and many films might be a filmmaker's strongest work. As I've caught up with a lot of Werner Herzog's work over the years, I felt he'd earned inclusion. I was torn between choosing Nosferatu or Aguirre: The Wrath of God to represent him, but opted for the vampire tale because Herzog's "reversioning" of Murnau's silent classic manages to be both a masterpiece of atmospherics and the best version of the Dracula tale put on screen.
Pedro Almodóvar’s career evolution has taken an arc that I imagine few could have anticipated. I know I certainly didn’t back in the 1980s, when his films mainly consisted of camp, color and sexual obsession. Around the time of 1997’s Live Flesh, the Spanish filmmaker’s style took an abrupt change, filtering genres through his unique perspective to exhilarating results that continue through last year’s The Skin I Live In. The greatest of this run of seven features happens to be the most recent film to make this new Top 100 list. Telling the story of two men caring for women they love, both of whom happen to be comatose, Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning screenplay manages to balance humor, pathos and even outlandish touches you’d never expect to make one helluva movie and the writer-director’s best film so far.
Littered along the highways of film history lie multiple tales of adversity breeding triumphs of cinema. As director Jules Dassin faced a possible subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably followed by blacklisting, at the end of the 1940s, producer Darryl Zanuck gave him an exit strategy. Dassin flew to London to hurriedly begin filming an adaptation of the novel Night and the City, which he’d never read, and as a result produced one of the greatest noirs of all time. Not only did he make the movie on the fly, Zanuck even stuck him with creating a role for Gene Tierney, nearly suicidal after a bad love affair. The novel’s author, Gerald Kersh, hated the movie about hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) scheming to bring Greco-Roman wrestling to London while ducking all sorts of colorful characters played by wonderful actors such as Francis L. Sullivan, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Hugh Marlowe and Mike Mazurki. Of course, Kersh’s gripe was understandable — the film bore no resemblance whatsoever to his novel other than the title. However, that didn’t prevent it from being a damn fine film.
It takes a lot to fool me and, in retrospect, I should have seen the final twist coming, but I didn't because Sayles crafted in his best film a compelling story in which the plot turn was unexpected and the movie’s story didn't hinge on it. Even if the secret never had been revealed, this portrait of skeletons from the past and their influence on the lives of people in the present still would resonate. Sayles assembles a helluva ensemble including Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton and, in one great single scene, Frances McDormand, to name but a few. Sayles has made some good films since Lone Star, but none come close to equaling the artistry, vitality and humanity of this one. I await another great one from him.
Set piece after set piece, Hitchcock puts Cary Grant through the paces and pulls the viewer along to his most purely entertaining offering. Grant never loses his cool as he's hunted by everyone, James Mason makes a suave bad guy and Martin Landau a perfectly sinister hired thug. With cameos by four former U.S. presidents. There's not much else to say about it: It's not an exercise in style or filled with layers and depth, it's just damn fun. In fact, it’s as much a comedy as a thriller.
There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead and Charles Laughton, one of the finest screen actors ever, certainly did with the only film he ever directed. The film's influences seem more prevalent than people who have actually seen this disturbing thriller with the great Robert Mitchum as the creepy preacher with love on one hand and hate on the other and the legendary Lillian Gish as the equivalent of the old woman who lived in a shoe, assuming the old woman was well armed.
In describing the film that put Kurosawa on the world’s radar as a major filmmaker, I’m going to let Robert Altman speak for me. This quote comes from his introduction to the Criterion Collection edition of the movie. "Rashomon is the most interesting, for me, of Kurosawa's films.…The main thing here is that when one sees a film you see the characters on screen.…You see very specific things — you see a tree, you see a sword — so one takes that as truth, but in this film, you take it as truth and then you find out it's not necessarily true and you see these various versions of the episode that has taken place that these people are talking about. You're never told which is true and which isn't true which leads you to the proper conclusion that it's all true and none of it's true. It becomes a poem and it cracks this visual thing that we have in our minds that if we see it, it must be a fact. In reading, in radio — where you don't have these specific visuals — your mind is making them up. What my mind makes up and what your mind makes up…is never the same."
For years, my standard response when asked about Raging Bull was that it was a film easier to admire than love. Each time that I’d see the movie again though, that point-of-view became less satisfactory because, as any great film should, the film kept rising higher in my esteem. In the film's opening moments, when Robert De Niro plays the older, fat Jake preparing for his lounge act in 1964 before it cuts to the ripped fighter in 1941, even though I consciously know both versions of La Motta were played by the same actor and that De Niro was that actor, the performance so entrances that I actually ask, "Who is this guy and why hasn't he made more movies?" To gaze at the way he sculpted his body into the shape of a believable middleweight boxer, sweat glistening in Michael Chapman's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, truly makes an impressive achievement. Acting isn't the proper word for what De Niro does here. He doesn't portray Jake La Motta, he becomes Jake La Motta, or at least the screen version, and leaves all vestiges of Robert De Niro somewhere else. Even when De Niro turns in good or great work in other roles, they never come as close to complete immersion as his La Motta does.
"Out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen," François Truffaut wrote about Rififi in his book The Films in My Life. I haven't read the Auguste Le Breton novel, but I don't doubt Truffaut's word. Dassin structures the film like a solid three-act play. Act I: Planning the heist. Act II: Carrying it out. Act III: The aftermath. Dassin fine-tunes each of the film's element to the point that Rififi practically runs as a machine all its own. The various characters behave more as chess pieces to be moved around as the story's game requires than as representatives of people. One single sequence though makes Rififi a landmark both in films and particularly heist movies: the robbery itself. Dassin films this in a 32-minute long silent sequence. No one speaks. Keeping everything as quiet as possible becomes the thieves' No. 1 priority. It's absolutely riveting. You'll be holding your breath as if you were involved in the crime yourself.
Howard Hawks appears for the first time on the list with a Western starring John Wayne that turned out to be so much fun they remade it (more or less) seven years later as El Dorado. I’ll stick with the original where the Duke’s allies include a great Dean Martin as a soused deputy sheriff, young Ricky Nelson and the always wily Walter Brennan. Wayne even gets to romance Angie Dickinson. No deep themes hidden here, though it's more layered than your typical Western. Still, that doesn't mean you can't kick up your spurs and enjoy.
The first time was the charm. One of the few insightful comments I heard on the 2007 AFI special was when Martin Scorsese said that in many ways he finds the primitive stop-motion effects of the original King Kong more impressive than later CGI versions. He's absolutely right. The 1933 version also offers more thrills and emotions (and in half the time) than Peter Jackson's technically superior but dramatically inferior and unnecessary remake. Let’s not even discuss the 1976 version.
When L.A. Confidential debuted on this list in its first year of eligibility in 2007, I wrote, “Of the films of fairly recent vintage, this is one that grows stronger each time I see it, earning comparisons to the great Chinatown…Well acted (even if Kim Basinger's Oscar was beyond generous), well written and well directed, I believe L.A. Confidential’s reputation will only grow greater as the years go on — yet it lost the Oscar (and a spot on the AFI list) to the insipid Titanic.” When I re-watched the film recently, my prediction proved to be spot-on as it only deepens as an experience and an entertainment as time passes. It still boggles my mind that with Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell (just to name four) delivering impeccable work that only Basinger landed a nomination, but losing best picture and director to James Cameron and Titanic remains the bigger crime.
Simply put: The tensest comedy ever made and perhaps Scorsese's most underrated film. Griffin Dunne plays the perfect beleaguered straight man enveloped by a universe of misfits and oddballs in lower Manhattan when all he wanted to do was get laid. It’s hard to imagine that this movie nearly became a Tim Burton project, but thanks to the many setbacks Scorsese endured attempting to make The Last Temptation of Christ, the film ended up being his — and recharged his batteries as well. While Scorsese has made great films since, I’d love to see him step back sometime and make another indie feature like After Hours on the fly just to see what happens. Joseph Minion wrote an excellent script and this represents one case where I think the changed ending actually proves superior to the originally intended one. By the way, whatever happened to Joseph Minion?
Watchability often gets undervalued when rating a film's worth, but I never tire of sitting through this thrill ride. One aspect that has impressed me since I first saw it as a teen back in 1985 (and I went two nights in a row, dragging my parents to it on the second) was its attention to detail such as Marty arriving in 1955 and mowing down a pine tree on the farm of the deranged man trying to “breed pines.” Then, when he returns to 1985, Twin Pines Mall now bears the sign Lone Pine Mall. It’s just a quiet sight gag in the background without any overt attempt to call attention to the joke. You either catch it or you don’t. I always admire films that respect audiences like that, especially when they happen to be this much fun. With equal touches of satire, suspense and genuine emotion, Back to the Future elicits pure joy. No matter how many times I see it, the final sequence where they prepare to send Marty back to 1985 holds me in rapt attention as I wonder if this time might be the time he doesn't actually make it.
A comedy about the Vietnam War that's full of blood and set in Korea, just as a matter of subterfuge. The film that put Altman on the map and inspired one of TV's best comedies (until it got too full of itself), MASH still holds up with its brilliant ensemble and wicked wit. I still wish the TV show had kept that theme song with its lyrics. Through early morning fog I see/visions of the things to be/the pains that are withheld for me/I realize and I can see.../That suicide is painless/It brings on many changes/and I can take or leave it if I please.
Back in 1985, before Goodfellas and The Sopranos really mixed mob stories with jet black comedy, the great director John Huston, in his second-to-last film, brought to the screen an adaptation of Richard Condon's Mafia satire Prizzi's Honor, complete with great performances and some of the most memorable lines ever collected in a single film. Huston may have been in the twilight of his days, but his filmmaking prowess was as strong as ever. Jack Nicholson disappeared into the role of Charley Partanna more than he had any role in recent memory. Kathleen Turner matched well with Nicholson as Charley's love whose work outside the house causes problems. William Hickey gave an eccentric and indelible portrait of the aging don. Finally, John's daughter Anjelica made up for a misfire of an acting debut decades earlier with her brilliant performance as the scheming Maerose and took home one of the most deserved supporting actress Oscars ever given.
Before Zhang Yimou started being obsessed with spectacle and martial arts, film after film, he produced some of the greatest personal stories in the history of movies, especially when his muse was the great and beautiful Gong Li. This film was their first truly flawless effort as Gong plays the young bride of a powerful lord who already has multiple wives and who encourages the sometimes brutal competition between the women.
"The film actually is like a snail — it kind of turns in on itself and becomes itself," Altman describes his film in an interview on its DVD. One of the many "comebacks" of Robert Altman's career, this brilliant Hollywood satire holds up viewing after viewing because it's so much more than merely a satire. Thanks to Tim Robbins' superb performance as the sympathetic heel of a Hollywood executive and the cynical yet deeper emotional punch of Michael Tolkin's script, Altman wows from the opening eight-minute take to one of the greatest final punchlines in movie history. However, the more times you see it, the more you discover to see. While some specific references have aged, the movie's relevance remains — now more than ever.
Schindler’s List marked an important moment in Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker: Peter Pan finally grew up. It’s a harrowing, well-made movie that everyone should see. At the same time, I can foresee a time when it slips off this list entirely. It isn’t the fault of the film — I find it nearly flawless. However, if someone placed a gun to my head and ordered me to choose to watch either Schindler’s or one of Spielberg’s best post-1993 films such as Catch Me If You Can or Minority Report, I’d opt for one of the latter two. Are they better films than Schindler’s List? I can’t say that. However, the epic holocaust tale isn’t a film you find yourself wanting to pop a bowl of popcorn and watching on a whim. As I said earlier, for me at least, rewatchability remains an important factor. I’ve seen Schindler’s List three times but I haven’t reached the point where I want to go through that wrenching experience again.
Bergman once said that by the time he was done making Wild Strawberries, the film really belonged more to Victor Sjöström, who played Borg, the renowned professor and lauded physician about to receive an honorary degree. The film marked Sjöström 's return from semi-retirement, but he already was a legend as the first true Swedish acting-directing star. Borg decides to drive his old Packard to the event instead of flying to meet his son. The journey becomes more than just a road trip for the professor, but a metaphysical trek through his past as he questions what led him to this moment. As the car winds closer to the ceremony, Borg's inner journey does as well as he comes to realize that for all his scientific training, the only thing he can't analyze is himself. "The day's clear reality dissolves into even clearer remnants of memory," he says. Wild Strawberries represents Bergman growing into his powers as a filmmaker and while it may concern a 78-year-old man examining his life, the subject proves as timeless for people of any age as the film itself.